ST. PAUL — District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, spent years obtaining a medical cannabis prescription to help alleviate symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
Now that he is cleared for the treatment, however, he has refused to fill his prescription after learning that medical cannabis patients aren't eligible to own firearms or purchase ammunition.
Speaking with his family — and others
Hamilton said his journey to becoming a medical cannabis patient started long before he began his application. When Minnesota was first considering legalization of the treatment, Hamilton took the discussion to his family. He asked his son (then in seventh grade) and daughter (then in fifth grade) what they thought.
Immediately, he said, his son told him, "I think I could support anything that would make you feel better."
Just as quickly, his daughter fired back, "Even if it turns Dad into a pothead?"
That conversation led Hamilton to initially oppose legalizing what was then called medical marijuana.
But, Hamilton said, "It's important for legislators to keep an open mind." So when a couple in his district asked to talk to him about co-signing on a bill to legalize marijuana for medical use, Hamilton agreed.
The couple told him about their young daughter who suffered from drop seizures. They had tried all kinds of treatments and therapies, but medical marijuana was the only thing that seemed to bring her any relief.
After hearing their appeal, Hamilton decided he would support the bill — on the condition that the terminology be changed from medical marijuana to medical cannabis.
A change in terminology
Even though there are medicines that stem from the same roots as other illicit drugs, Hamilton said, they go by different names.
"We don't say 'medical cocaine.' We don't say 'medical heroin,'" he noted.
Hamilton also determined to visit medical cannabis manufacturers and dispensaries and talk to patients about their experiences.
With Hamilton's support, medical cannabis was legalized during the 2014 legislative session. The treatment is currently only authorized for patients with certain medical conditions and is only prescribed in liquid, vapor or pill form.
A doctor's advice, and registration
In 2017, during a routine physical therapy appointment at Mayo Clinic, Hamilton explained that he hadn't found a good treatment for the painful muscle spasms he experiences as a result of multiple sclerosis.
His physical therapist suggested that he try medical cannabis.
However, Hamilton had recently moved into a new house, so the address on his driver's license didn't match his residential address — which disqualified him from enrolling in the medical cannabis program. He was told to provide a utility bill as proof of address, but since he and his wife were in the habit of throwing out the bill after paying it, Hamilton would have to wait until the next month's bill arrived.
By that time, his prescription had expired. Hamilton decided to just forget the whole thing.
More than a year later, Hamilton's primary care provider suggested medical cannabis. After a few bureaucratic and technical hiccups, Hamilton was finally enrolled in the program. In a May 7 tweet, Hamilton informed the public that he was "officially registered."
The next day, Hamilton found out that because he was a medical cannabis patient, he had lost his right to own firearms. His concealed carry permit became null and void.
"That's a big deal for me," Hamilton said.
Pushing for change
Hamilton shared with the public a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that explains that under federal law, anyone unlawfully using a controlled substance may not possess firearms or ammunition.
"Marijuana is listed in the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I controlled substance, and there are no exceptions in Federal law for marijuana purportedly used for medicinal purposes, even if such use is sanctioned by State law," the letter reads in part.
When he received this news, Hamilton determined not to continue with the medical cannabis program until the issue was resolved.
He also sprang into action, contacting U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Jim Hagedorn and Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar for their help in changing the designation of marijuana in order to allow medical cannabis users to retain their Second Amendment rights.
"(Marijuana) needs to be reclassified from Schedule I to Schedule II so the federal government recognizes that it has medicinal qualities," Hamilton said.
Another solution, he said, is to amend state law to contradict federal law. Labeling marijuana a Schedule II substance would also allow scientists to research its medicinal properties further, he noted.
Hamilton pointed out that taking cannabis as a medication has very different effects than using marijuana for recreation. Medical cannabis users do not "get high."
While touring facilities of medical cannabis manufacturers LeafLine Labs and Minnesota Medical Solutions, Hamilton learned that cannabis production is a fairly precise science.
"It's a learning process for many people, myself included," he said.
Knowing a patient's symptoms, manufactures can provide a strain of cannabis that will help with their specific needs.
"The manufacturers are very professional," Hamilton added, saying that both facilities emphasized safety, security and quality control.
Moving forward, Hamilton plans to continue to learn about the medical cannabis program — and he won't use medical cannabis as long as it means that he can't own a gun.
"To this date, I have not filled my prescription," he said.
In the coming legislative session, Hamilton will work with other legislators on both the federal and state levels to find a solution to his concern.
Throughout the entire process, Hamilton promised, "I will remain transparent."